Sci-fi fantasy author and BYU alumnus Brandon Sanderson visited BYU as part of the English Reading Series where he read from his unpublished final book of the Legion series and gave timely tips to aspiring writers.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 23, 2018) —I arrived at the Varsity Theater half an hour prior to Brandon Sanderson’s English Reading Series a few weeks ago, anticipating a nice open seat on the first or second row. I was naïve. I couldn’t even find an end seat on the third and fourth rows—I had to settle for the sixth. A never-ending flow of people streamed in and immediately began sprawling their ski coats, scarfs, hats, books—any object on hand that could realistically reserve seats. Even on the snowiest day in Utah this year, families, students, and faculty trekked through the threatening weather and packed into the theater with Sanderson’s books in hand.
For the past ten years, Sanderson has been the “it” author of fantasy fiction—publishing a staggering 30+ books over 12 years, including his most popular series: Mistborn, Elantris, Way of Kings, and Steelheart, to name a few. Before becoming a New York Times bestselling author and having his books translated into many languages and sold worldwide, Sanderson received his undergrad in English from BYU as well as an MA in creative writing. BYU student Sam Watson gave insight into why Sanderson’s work resonates with so many. He said: “Although he often writes in fantastical settings, he uses them to tell very real human stories of struggle, loss, and triumph. He is able to do this because his characters and their emotions and trials are real and the effect that these stories have on readers can be just as real.” This insight explains why Sanderson’s expansive fan base has turned to social media—arguably his most loyal following is on Twitter, with a fan account boasting 19.5K likes under the self-proclaimed handle: @SandersonArmy.
With this introduction, Brandon took his place behind the podium with ease, obviously comfortable commanding a crowd. His voice was confident and casual, talking as if each member of the audience was a personal friend. “I remember many a time going to the Reading Series when I was a student here. It’s fun to finally be doing it myself; I was excited for the invitation and the opportunity.” Sanderson explained that when he does a reading, he likes to share what he’s currently working on, usually something that isn’t published yet.
He recalled that about 10 years ago, while talking to his good friend Dan Wells, he shared with him an idea he had for a story—about a person who is schizophrenic and has hallucinations, but instead of the hallucinations being harmful, they actually help the individual. Sanderson remembered that Wells said, “Brandon, that sounds like a Brandon Sanderson book, not a Dan Wells book, you should write it.” It was from this seed that the Legion series sprouted, which chronicles a person with a peculiar psychology. Sanderson explained that the main character is a genius and can learn any subject—his brain absorbs all that knowledge and then puts it into a hallucination that he can see, a sort of receptacle of knowledge.
Though widely popular, Sanderson noted, “I was very confused a few years ago when one of my books started selling way better than it had been, then I realized someone had made a Marvel TV show called the same thing, and all of the comments on Amazon were like, ‘This was a really weird take on the TV show, but I liked it.’ I guess I’ll take it, right?” Sanderson gifted attendees by reading a few chapters from the second draft of the final book in the Legion series which, based off the chuckles and grins from the audience, is destined to equal the success of the first two novellas in the series.
Before Sanderson was whisked away for a book-signing with fervent fans, he offered a Q & A where he gave insight into his brilliant writing process. A girl toward the back of the room asked, “One of the most important aspects of writing is just sitting down in your chair and writing, no matter how much you don’t want to. How do you do that?” Sanderson nodded and put it bluntly: “Some days you sit down to write and it just doesn’t work— I force myself to write anyway.” He continued to advise that, “If I do that, if I force myself to do that anyway, then the next day when I approach writing the same scene, having had a lot of time for my brain to work on and mull over what was going wrong, I can attack it from a new direction—starting over and putting aside those words and it’ll work for me . . . because I’ll try it someway new that my brain solved while I’ve been waiting. Really, it’s persistence.”
The next question was one that resonates with many: “When you’re writing a story, do you typically have an idea of the plot line and where that story’s going to go? Or do you typically start writing and see where it takes you, and what do you do when you get stuck? What are some techniques for creating inspiration?” Sanderson offered many tips, revealing: “I usually outline backward. I kind of start with my goals—the emotional goals I want to have the readers journey. . . the plot . . . the character arcs—what’s going to make this story meaningful?” He continued to implore that when you get stuck, “write it anyway, write it poorly, do anything with that chapter, have it be weird, you know, have ninjas attack, I don’t care what it is, write that chapter knowing it’s not going build on the book, but give your subconscious some time to work on it, that works really well.”
It’s evident that from the earliest stages of his writing, Sanderson prioritizes examining the human condition, questioning if his audience will have an emotional reaction and personally identify with his characters. Though his stories operate within the realms of fantasy, the characters Sanderson creates face very authentic human battles—perhaps that’s why Sanderson’s readers can be characterized as an army: they rally around stories that explore all facets of human character and champion their triumphs. As long as Sanderson continues to interrogate this world of fantasy and human behavior, his army will not stand-down.
—Emily Gardiner (B.A. English, ’18)
Emily covers news for the English Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in English with a minor in writing and rhetoric.